Tuesday, 6 March 2018

SONGS OF LIU SANJIE / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (3 March 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 March 2018 with the title "Breezy take on Liu Sanjie coupled with catchy tunes."

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's annual collaboration in this year's Huayi Chinese Festival of Arts was the world premiere of a concert production based on the iconic 1961 movie-musical Liu Sanjie. Liu Sanjie (Third Sister Liu) was the legendary heroine of the Zhuang people of Guangxi, renowned for her expressive singing and indomitable spirit.

A beautiful view of the Li River and its karst landscape
was the backdrop for this concert. 

Hailed a symbol of resistance against corrupt feudal landlords, the original movie depicted the  triumph of proletariats against greedy landowning bourgeoisie. Using songs originally written by Lei Zhen Bang, Cultural Medallion recipient Law Wai Lun's adaptation and orchestration trimmed the 110-minute content to a more manageable 80 minutes, while toning down its overtly socialist message.

The movie poster for Liu Sanjie
starring Huang Wanqiu as the heroine.

Central to the music is the shan ge (song of the hill-tribes), sung by the protagonist and her allies. Once heard, the catchy melodies and their variants ring in the ears, almost impossible to be rid of. This was especially when sung by soprano Wang Qing Shuang, who brilliantly sounded the part while looking a paradigm of virtue and innocence in her ethnic outfit designed by Max Tan and Yuan Zhiying.

Supporting her were tenor Jonathan Charles Tay (as love interest Ah Niu), soprano Peng Siran (sidekick Zhou Mei) and baritone William Lim (Old Fisherman), who were excellent in their portrayals. Opposing them stood Alvin Chiam (villain Mo Huai Ren in a speaking role) with his beard-stroking malevolence and evil laughter. His lackeys were the bumbling comedic trio of tenors Raymond Lee, Jeremy Koh and baritone Alvin Tan, taking a leaf from Ping, Pang and Pong from Puccini's Turandot.

Although referred to as a choral symphony, this was more a cantata in six seamlessly connected movements. One might have expected the climax to have taken place in the much-anticipated song duel between Liu Sanjie and the three hapless scholars, as in the movie. That was in the 3rd movement, just before the intermission, when the spunky youth easily vanquished her adversaries with quick retorts and thinly-veiled insults.

But no, “The Competition” merely served like a prelude to the 4th and 5th movements' melodic delights where Liu and Ah Niu's love duet better fleshed out their personalities. These were separated by tense dissonant moments from the orchestra depicting Liu's abduction and incarceration by Mo's minions. This was short-lived with the heroes plotting a ridiculously easy getaway.

Goh Boon Teck's direction in the semi-staged production ensured that the narrative was breezy and fluently executed without missing the essence of the endeavour. Yeh Tsung's orchestra accompanied sympathetically, although the amplified solo voices and those of the Vocal Associates Festival Choruses (Khor Ai Ming, Chorus Mistress) were occasionally obscured.

The final movement''s big tune Folksongs Are Like The River In Spring reiterated the triumph of singing, this time with percussionist Shen Guo Qin's drum-set ensuring a Broadway and bright lights feel-good ending that drew a standing ovation. Had Liu Sanjie turned capitalist? That will be one for the books.         

Wang Qing Shuang with Jonathan Charles Tay,
Alvin Chiam and Jeremy Koh.
Director Goh Boon Teck, conductor Yeh Tsung and
composer Law Wai Lun receiving their accolades.

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